Pain v. Suffering
We often hear about this distinction between pain and suffering. The old aphorism goes something like, “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional”. I tend to speak about it with clients in terms of distinguishing thoughts from feelings. As Jill Bolte Taylor points out, a feeling only lasts about 90 seconds (to work its way through the nervous system). When we add a story to the feeling, it can last hours, days, or a lifetime. It’s no longer a feeling – it’s a mood, an attitude, a belief system, a cognitive distortion.
Vedic meditation teacher, Jeff Kober, put it this way in his newsletter today:
Pain exists. In life, it is a given. But suffering is another story. Suffering might be described as the pain we feel about being in pain. It is the self-obsession that sets in when we cannot get out of the pain, cannot see past the pain, when all our thoughts are engaged with our pain and what our pain says about ourselves and the world. We call this speculation. And speculation leads only to suffering. Ever.
Last night I re-watched the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocket Man. It’s a fun film, but there’s a poignant scene at the end that beautifully exemplifies the power of inner child work – and no doubt the depth therapy that guided the real Elton through healing the tumult and misery of his own early attachment wounds. It’s a simple scene. The compassionate adult Elton steps into the scene and lovingly embraces the sad and troubled child Elton (Reggie). So much is shown and felt in that brief moment.
My favorite Rogers quote comes not from the wonderful therapist Carl Rogers, famous for what’s referred to as The Rogerian Triad: “Unconditional – positive – Regard” (which is pretty good!), but from Fred Rogers , AKA Mister Rogers: “Anything human is mentionable. Anything mentionable is manageable“.
Alone Versus Lonely
Way back when the pandemic first began Jill Lepore wrote an essay on loneliness in the New Yorker. I found the essay unremarkable, but a few weeks later two letters responding to it were featured in the Mail section of the magazine. I cut them out thinking they would be a good thing to add here, as so many people are very afraid of being alone, and the new quarantine was sure to expose this aversion/terror. Now that we’re nearly a year into it, and no end seems near, I’m finally getting around to adding the highlights here.
I was reminded of these two letters the other night while watching Schitt’s Creek. Occasionally there’s a nugget of wisdom hidden amongst the hilarity. The character Twyla offhandedly says to her friend, “Well, if you can’t be alone you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship.”
An excerpt from the first letter states, “I wouldn’t say that I’m happy under shelter-in-place orders, but I disagree with the assertion that solitude necessarily leads to intractable problems. I myself find deep pleasure and freedom in living alone. Many women after a lifetime of unsupported, unpaid, inescapable caregiving, experience relief and self-actualization on their own. I see Lepore’s personal revulsion for aloneness as a condemnation of the efforts of women in this country to break their dependence on others.”
The second letter states, “…Lepore blurs the line between loneliness and solitude…Chekhov wrote in his notebook, ‘If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.’ …Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a married mother of seven, wrote ‘Solitude of Self‘, which is among our most eloquent expressions of every person’s fundamental aloneness. And Marianne Moore perhaps put it best when she wrote that ‘the cure for loneliness is solitude.’ “
You Don’t Look Adopted
If you are an adopted person, or care about someone who is – this is the one book that captures it all. I just finished You Don’t Look Adopted: a memoir by Anne Heffron. It’s the first book about adoption I’ve come across that is written for a general audience, rather than focussed on adoptees or adoptive parents. I mean…it’s accessible! And funny! And I feel as if she unzipped me and spilled out the mess I felt was there but couldn’t quite find or fully acknowledge. As a line from the book puts is, “…relief in recognition”. Heffron touches on, processes and gives her intimate spin on every aspect of being an adopted person. A fast moving memoir that’s hard to put down. Heffron wanted to write the book she wishes she’d read when she was seventeen. She accomplished that, and I too wonder what might have been different if I had read it at seventeen.
More on DNA Surprises…
A friend sent me an amazing photo and text essay from the New York Times called A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers. It’s a fascinating view of the sperm donor situation. Thanks to DNA testing and social media, people conceived through sperm donors are now able to connect with dozens of half siblings quite easily. Navigating the often unexpected feelings that arise can be challenging. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/26/magazine/sperm-donor-siblings.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
There is also a new book out by Nara Milanich titled Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father. According to Margaret Talbot’s book review in the New Yorker (July 1), the book delves deeply into the history of paternity that has so recently been turned upsidedown – “that the immutable difference between men and women was that men could hide the fact that they had created a child and women could not”. Once again, Time’s Up!…thanks to the ease of home DNA kits. You can read the review here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/01/the-paternity-reveal
In Defense of Fiction
A few years ago I was discussing the merits of fiction with someone who was bemoaning the fact that these days so many people seem to consider novels a waste of time. She quoted a literature professor she once had who said something to the effect of, “If you want facts, read nonfiction. If you want truth, read fiction”. I loved it and it’s been stuck on my refrigerator door ever since.
I’m thinking of it now because of a quote I just read by Parul Sehgal, who said, “Novels…are capable of what nonfiction is not, because fiction is free to occupy the backwaters where the writer need not pander or persuade”.
I’ve read so many great novels lately – and feel like I’ve been soaking up a lot of truth. A few are: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson; The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash; and How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas.
Surprise! It’s a Sibling: Genetic Testing Can Reveal Unexpected Results – Many Unprepared for Fallout Over Family Secrets
The S.F. Chronicle ran a story in March about 3 siblings from the same sperm donor pool who inadvertently found each other via genetic testing. Today they ran a fascinating follow up article on several other Bay Area folks who discovered/uncovered family secrets the same way. One is the oldest sibling of 6 who was adopted out before his parents got married and had 5 other children. Another is a woman who found she had two half brothers from the family her father abandoned before he married her mother. Another found the father she grew up with was not her biological father, revealing her mother had had an affair which she was the product of. Lots of skeletons are coming out of lots of closets, thanks to DNA testing! Many adoptees I work with are fearful of what they might find if/when they embark on this journey of discovery. “What if I find something ugly? Something that will forever change this version of me?” In my experience, both personally and professionally, the romantic Hollywood version of discoveries and reunions are quite rare. It’s usually complicated at best, and often disorienting. But I truly believe that the truth heals. The initial deceits and betrayals are the problem – not the unveiling of facts and facing them squarely. I read somewhere in adoption literature something to the effect of, “Everyone deserves to know the first chapter of their life”. Even if, maybe especially if, it’s not the pretty picture one might hope for. Courage is often the first step towards true healing. You can view the Chronicle article here https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/These-Bay-Area-residents-had-their-DNA-tested-13836225.php
A few weeks ago I sprained my ankle. Far greater than the physical pain was the mental torment I put myself through. Once again I was reminded of the old adage, “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional”. Mercifully, because I read about it and talk about it so much with clients, I was able to find more and more moments of relief through practicing what I preach. These were the moments I remembered to come back to the present moment. Admittedly, I spent a good deal of time in the past (how I could have/should have prevented this from happening), and projecting into the future (what will happen if it doesn’t heal, all the things I’ll have to miss, how hard it will be to do this, that and the other thing). But when I came back to the moment I realized that I was actually o.k. Uncomfortable maybe, limited in mobility, but really o.k.
During this same week I came across a quote that was a helpful reminder, and seemed to speak directly to my situation:
The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem. Theodore Isaac Rubin
There is a fascinating and alarming article in the New Yorker this week, that should be of great interest to anyone taking, or considering, psychotropic meds. Bitter Pill, by Rachel Aviv, asks the question, “Why do we know so little about how to stop taking psychiatric drugs?” The answers are quite shocking. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-challenge-of-going-off-psychiatric-drugs
Jamail Yogis Tweet
I’m not the retweeting type, but I just saw this by one of my favorite writers and have to paste it in.
We think of a day as good or bad but there are 86400 seconds in a day. Many thoughts rush by per-second. Take a mindful breath. Think of something you’re grateful for. Feel your feet on the ground. That was likely a good ten seconds. Try it again. A day is a string of moments.
I WILL BE COMPLETE by Glen David Gold
I just finished reading one of my top twenty favorite books of all time – and I’m so mesmerized I can’t think of what the other nineteen could be. Gold’s brilliant memoir of his dysfunctional childhood and complicated relationships on through his 30s, viewed through the lens of middle age, is deeply and sharply insightful. It’s shocking and riveting, while written with great humor and unique style. I suspect all who gravitate towards psychotherapy will resonate, at least to some degree. Suffice it to say, the writing is just so dang good! I rarely read books twice, but this may be an exception.
ADOPTION STORIES WORKSHOP
I’m very happy to get my first entry up in time to recommend an upcoming two day Expressive Arts and Drama Therapy workshop for adult adoptees. We’re so fortunate to have such a rare offering right here in the East Bay. The title of the workshop is Adoption Stories: Healing the Primal Wound, and will take place February 24&25. The facilitators are Amber Fields and Armand Volkas. Here are their bios, and you can find more at http://www.livingartscounseling.org/event/adoption-stories-a-7-session-drama-therapy-expressive-arts-workshop This is an opportunity not to be missed.
Amber Field is a Korean American transracial adoptee artist, teacher and healer. They are a Tamalpa Institute Associate Teacher of expressive arts and a musician who specializes in helping people free their voices. Amber also leads a training The Art of Solidarity that uses embodied arts practices to transform individuals and communities. They are passionate about helping adopted people explore their many feelings around adoption and find home within themselves.
Contact information: (415) 573-4092, firstname.lastname@example.org
Armand Volkas is a psychotherapist and Registered Drama Therapist in private practice and Clinical Director of the Living Arts Counseling Center in Emeryville, California. He is a Board Certified Trainer in this discipline with The North American Drama Therapy Association. In addition, Armand is Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology Program at California Institute of Integral Studies and Adjunct Professor at John F. Kennedy University, Sofia University, the Summer Peacebuilding Institute and the Canadian School of Peacebuilding. He has developed innovative programs using drama therapy and expressive arts therapies for social change, intercultural conflict transformation and peacebuilding.